Sonia Gandhi's visit to China highlighted India's new style of multilayered diplomacy, writes Deep Datta-Ray
India's most powerful politician innocuously used a phrase that usually signifies a particularly invidious brand of self-serving opportunism when she said that the guiding principles of relations with China are 'pragmatism and mutual interest'. All the more credit, therefore, to the Italian-born leader of India's ruling Congress party, Sonia Gandhi, for painting the fundamentals of Sino-Indian relations in such stark terms during her recent visit.
Mrs Gandhi actually outlined a diplomatic practice that is ethical by conception and moral in practice because it minimises conflict while enhancing co-operation, especially when interests are shifting - as is the case now. Such shifts inevitably produce conflict.
The advantage of pragmatic management of conflict over a doctrinaire approach is that flexibility provides practical solutions and, most importantly, fosters perspective - the ability to appreciate the other's point of view. Contingent on communication, pragmatism also requires plain speaking. Mrs Gandhi's plain speaking in China was an example of the effective transmission of interests, ideas and aspirations. This multilayered diplomacy explains the success of Sino-Indian relations.
In practice, it translates into India not restricting contact to the usual diplomatic channels. A stream of official visits ensures depth to India's knowledge of China, creates a broad base of contacts and opens multiple channels of communication. Last month, India's top diplomat - a Sinologist by training - visited Beijing. He was followed by the foreign minister, who met his Chinese and Russian counterparts in Harbin. Mrs Gandhi's visit fits into this programme of engaging China at several levels, with son Rahul - regarded as the prime minister in waiting - adding a temporal dimension and being exposed to an important developmental model in India's most important neighbour.
Another innovation of multilayered diplomacy is that each delegation tackles a particular aspect of relations which, given their complexity, demand a division of labour. Thus, deadlock in one area does not disrupt the whole. Mrs Gandhi's limited role was to reinforce the broad parameters of the relationship and convey how impressed India is by China's achievements.
Her admission of being 'amazed and astounded' transmitted the essence of Indian thought. Replicating China's economic success - without its errors - involves learning from its model.
That mother and son were granted the rare honour of being received by the top echelons of the Chinese leadership - who usually meet only heads of state - suggests that China, too, is willing to abandon age-old notions of diplomatic hierarchy and reciprocate India's pragmatic approach. Trade is the obvious beneficiary. Increasing at more than 50 per cent annually, it is set to exceed the projected target of US$40 billion for 2010.
This is extraordinary, given the plethora of India's concerns and complexes about China. The border dispute tops the list. China's stalling tactics - repeatedly changing the basis of discussions - means that the issue continues to fester and risks infecting the entire relationship.
Then there is nuclear assistance to Bangladesh, surveillance facilities in Myanmar's Coco islands, Pakistan's Gwadar port and China's 'string of pearls' strategy in the Indian Ocean, aimed at acquiring access and strategic bases along more than 10,00km of sea lanes.
Sticking to Indian diplomacy's division of labour, Mrs Gandhi did not discuss the border. That is for the working group of civil servants and special representatives. Meanwhile, though new ties produce new challenges, such as a US$4 billion trade deficit, India's new style is to isolate areas of disagreement while consolidating areas of agreement.
The aim is to deal with a range of complex issues individually instead of linking them. In this way, diplomatic continuity between the two Asian giants results in an inextricable intermeshing of economic interests to the point when conflict becomes unthinkable.
Until that point is reached, there must be more contact, more communication and more visits. Some progress is better than none.
Deep Kisor Datta-Ray is a London-based historian and commentator on Asian affairs. firstname.lastname@example.org